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The battle of Dien Bien Phu



In 1953, the French had begun to strengthen their defenses in the Hanoi delta region and to prepare for a series of offences against Viet Minh staging areas in northwest Vietnam. They had set up a number of fortified towns and outposts in the area, including Lai-Chau near the Chinese border to the north, Na San to the west of Hanoi, and Luang-Prabang and Plaine des Jarres in northern Laos.

That spring, General Vo Nguyen Giap of the Viet Minh launched a major offensive against Na San. After several days of fierce fighting, Vo withdrew most of his forces. The French reasoned that if a smaller, hastily prepared base like Na San could do so much damage in a pitched battle, a well-planned one could bring the Viet Minh force to task.

Several sites were studied, but Dien Bien Phu rose to the top. The village lay in a bowl-shaped valley with a bottom that was flat enough for a major airbase, was near or on several major roads, and was surrounded by easily defendable hills. If the hills could be taken, the valley would be secure and could be used as a major air-supply route.

All of the advantages for the French were equal disadvantages for the Viet Minh. A number of their troop concentrations were on the far side of the valley, supplied via the roads that would be cut. These forces would be forced to move east over considerably rougher terrain or to open the roads with an attack on the base itself; the French hoped for the latter. In addition, the same terrain should prevent the movement of the Viet Minh's Chinese-supplied artillery into the area.

On the downside, Dien Bien Phu was far enough from Saigon that, if a major fight did break out, the French air transport units would be hard-pressed to keep up with demands. Although they believed they were barely able to make it work, no steps were taken to improve this vital part of the operation.

       

Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, Vietnam's legendary war hero, meets with American writers, including Larry Heinemann (blue shirt) in Hanoi, 1990. .

In late 1953, as both sides prepared for peace talks, the French decided to strengthen their hand at the table with one major victory, and started the process of taking Dien Bien Phu.

The battle proper opened on March 13 when, much to the surprise of the French, the Viet Minh unleashed a massive artillery barrage. By the end of the first night 9,000 shells had fallen on the area, and the Beatrice and Gabrielle positions had both fallen. In a major logistical feat, the Viet Minh had dragged scores of artillery pieces up steeply forested hillsides that the French had written off as impassable. The French artillery commander, distraught at his inability to bring counter fire on the well-camouflaged Viet Minh batteries, went into his dugout and killed himself with a hand grenade. He was buried there in great secrecy to prevent loss of morale among the French troops.

The French responded by parachuting in reinforcements, but they were fired on by anti-aircraft guns, another surprise on the part of the Viet Minh. Considering the vital need for air supply, this was a troubling development for the defenders of the base. The French also started using their ground attack aircraft against the artillery, but there were not enough to have any real effect, considering how well the guns were hidden.

Realizing the importance of the air supply, Giap switched from the massed attacks to a steady encroachment, conducting a web of trenches and artillery bombardments. In addition, the Viet Minh started the process of digging long trenches towards the middle of the camp, covering their movements from direct fire, and allowing for a build-up and assault under cover. The first runway fell after a five-day advance from the 18th to the 23rd. The last aircraft landed on the 28th on the second runway, but was destroyed in the process. The French responded with an offensive of their own on the 28th, attacking anti-aircraft positions. On the 31st the French recaptured two of the hilltop fortifications, Dominique and Eliane, but later had to evacuate them due to lack of reinforcements.

With re-supply now entirely by parachute, supply flow started to dwindle. A good portion of the airdropped supplies landed in Viet Minh-controlled areas, giving them much needed materiel. The Vietnamese had essentially won the battle at this point, and they referred to the remainder of the battle as "slowly bleeding the dying elephant". During the last week of April the yearly monsoon arrived, further reducing the effectiveness of any air support that could be given. Trenches became hazards, and bunkers collapsed. The last replacements-4,306 soldiers under General Marcel Bigeard, parachuted in between March 14 and May 6-did not even make up for the losses suffered between those dates, 5,500. The French launched "Operation Condor" in April to relieve the garrison by sending a relief force from the Laotian capital to the valley. But the force became stalled in the featureless Laotian jungle and the garrison was isolated.

The French saw that defeat was imminent, but they sought to hold on till the Geneva peace meeting, which took place on April 26. The last French offensive took place on May 4, but it was ineffective. The Viet Minh then began to hammer the fort with newly acquired Russian rocket artillery. Giap mounted his final assault on May 1. From all sides the Viet Minh troops attacked the French positions and despite fierce resistance from French and Foreign Legion troops, Dominique, Eliane and Huguette were overrun over the next three days. By then, the French food rations were down to only five days and many of the troops were low on ammunition. Their hospital, short on medical supplies, was overcrowding with dead and wounded and the French morale was beginning to crack.

The final fall took two days, May 6th and 7th, during which the French fought on but were eventually overrun by a huge frontal assault. The final assault was on May 7, where after another massive Viet Minh artillery barrage, 25,000 of Giap's remaining men attacked the fewer than 3,000 French troops in the shrinking perimeter. The Viet Minh poured into the remaining French defence and despite determined resistance from the French, the equally determined Viet Minh reached the French headquarters by 5:30 p.m. and De Castries surrendered. Although strongpoint Isabelle was to survive for another 24 hours, the siege of Dien Bien Phu was technically over. The 11,000 or more prisoners taken at Dien Bien Phu were the greatest number the Viet Minh had ever captured: one-third of the total captured during the entire war.

       

French troops surrender on 7 April 1954.

The victory by the Viet Minh led to the 1954 Geneva accords, which partitioned Vietnam into communist North Vietnamese and French South Vietnamese administered zones. This partition was supposed to be temporary, and the two zones were supposed to be reunited by national elections in 1956. After the French withdrawal, the U.S. supported the southern government under Ngo Dinh Diem, which opposed the agreement The dispute eventually escalated into the Second Indochina War that lasted until 1975 when the North finally won the war and unified the country.

 

Truong Son (Ho Chi Minh) Trail

The Ho Chi Minh Trail was a complex web of different jungle paths that enabled the North Vietnamese troops to travel to areas close to Saigon. It has been estimated that the National Liberation Front received sixty tons of aid per day from this route. Most of this was carried by porters. Occasionally bicycles and ponies would also be used.

At regular intervals along the route the NLF built base camps. As well as providing a place for them to rest, the base camps provided medical treatment for those who had been injured or had fallen ill on the journey.

In the early days of the war it took six months to travel from North Vietnam to Saigon on the Ho Chi Minh Trail. But the more people who traveled along the route the easier it became. By 1970, fit and experienced soldiers could make the journey in six weeks.

The Trail is divided into 2 parts: the distance from the Ca River Valley in Ha Tinh province to Hai Van Pass in Da Nang is called the Northern Truong Son Trail; the distance from Hai Van Pass to the region adjacent to the Mekong Delta in Binh Duong and Binh Phuoc provinces, is called the Southern Truong Son Trail.

       

Military movement on the Truong Son (Ho Chi Minh) trail

The Truong Son Trail, or Ho Chi Minh Trail, was a great military success of the North Vietnamese. They used the Ho Chi Minh Trail to send soldiers to the south. At times, as many as 20,000 soldiers a month came from Hanoi in this way. The dangers for the North Vietnamese forces on the Ho Chi Minh Trail were both American bombs and diseases like malaria.

From the air the Ho Chi Minh Trail was impossible to identify and although massive firepower of the American and South Vietnamese armed forces tried to destroy this vital supply line by heavy bombing, they failed to stem flows of materiel, supplies and troops into South Vietnam. Many South Vietnamese strategists contended that bombings, sporadic land operations or electronic barrier so-called "McNamara Line" would fail to interdict the North movement on the Trail. According to them, only a defence line of several infantry divisions across the border, reaching the Mekong River in Laos could have been effective. This plan was abandoned in 1967 after repeated attacks by the NLF on those involved in constructing this barrier.

 

Cu Chi Tunnel

The tunnels of Cu Chi are an immense network of connecting underground tunnels located in the Cu Chi district of Vietnam, and are part of a much larger network of tunnels that underlie much of the country. The Cu Chi tunnels were the location of several military campaigns during the Vietnam War, and were the Viet Cong base of operations for the Tet Offensive in 1968.

The tunnels were used by Viet Cong guerrillas as hiding spots during combat, as well as serving as communication and supply routes, hospitals, food and weapon caches and living quarters for numerous guerrilla fighters. The role of the tunnel systems cannot be underestimated in its importance to the Viet Cong in resisting American operations and protracting the war, eventually forcing the Americans into withdrawal.

The district of Cu Chi is located 40 kilometres to the northwest of Saigon near the so-called "Iron Triangle". Both the Saigon River and Route 1 pass through the region which served as major supply routes in and out of Saigon during the war. This area was also the termination of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Because of this, the Cu Chi and the nearby Ben Cat districts had immense strategic value for the Viet Cong.

The tunnels began in 1948 so that the Viet Minh could hide from French air and ground sweeps. Each hamlet built their own underground communications route through the hard clay, and over the years, the separate tunnels were slowly and meticulously connected and fortified. By 1965, there was over 200 kilometres of connected tunnel - from the Cambodian border in the west to the outskirts of what was then Saigon.

As the tunnel system grew, so did its complexity. Arms stores, hospitals, bomb shelters and even theatres to stage politically-motivating plays were added. Sleeping chambers, kitchens and wells were built to house and feed the growing number of residents and rudimentary hospitals created to treat the wounded. Most of the supplies used to build and maintain the tunnels were stolen or scavenged from U.S. bases or troops.

       

The tunnel

Kitchens to supply the tunnels' occupants with food were always built near the surface, but with long chimneys carved out through the ground to diffuse the smoke from the cooking fires and release it at a distance.

The medical system serves as a good example of Vietnamese ingenuity in overcoming a lack of basic resources. Stolen motorcycle engines created light and electricity and scrap metal from downed aircraft were fashioned into surgical tools. Doctors even came up with new ways of performing sophisticated surgery. By the early 1960's, the Viet Cong had created a relatively self-sufficient community that was able to house hundreds of people and for the most part, go undetected by large amounts of American troops based, literally, right on top of the tunnels.

American soldiers used the term "Black echo" to describe the conditions within the tunnels. For the Viet Cong, life in the tunnels was difficult. Air, food and water were scarce and the tunnels were infested with ants, poisonous centipedes, spiders and mosquitoes. Most of the time, guerrillas would spend the day in the tunnels working or resting and come out only at night to scavenge supplies, tend their crops or engage the enemy in battle. Sometimes, during periods of heavy bombing or American troop movement, they would be forced to remain underground for many days at a time. Sickness was rampant among the people living in the tunnels; especially malaria, which accounted for the second largest cause of death next to battle wounds. In spite of these hardships, the Viet Cong managed to wage successful campaigns against a professional army that was technologically far superior.

The tunnels of Cu Chi did not go completely unnoticed by U.S. officials. They recognized the advantages that the Viet Cong held with the tunnels, and accordingly launched several major campaigns to search out and destroy the tunnel system. Among the most important of these were: Operation Crimp and Operation Cedar Falls.

Operation Crimp began on January 7th with B-52 bombers dropping 30-ton loads of high explosive onto the region of Cu Chi, effectively turning the once lush jungle into a pockmarked moonscape. Eight thousand troops from the 1st Infantry, 173rd Airborne, and the Royal Australian Regiment combed the region looking for any clues of Viet Cong activity.

The operation was, for the most part, unsuccessful. On the occasion when troops found a tunnel, they would often underestimate its size. Rarely would anyone be sent in to search the tunnels, as it was so hazardous. Besides being too small for most Western men to fit through, the tunnels were often rigged with explosive booby traps or punji stake pits. The two main responses in dealing with a tunnel opening were either: to flush the entrance with gas or water to force the guerrillas into the open or simply toss a few grenades down the hole and "crimp" off the opening. Needless to say, the clever design of the tunnels along with the strategic use of trap doors and air filtration systems rendered American technology ineffective.

Frustrated by an inability to overcome a determined but poorly equipped peasant army the most technologically advanced fighting force in the world was forced to adopt the most basic form of hand-to-hand combat.

Out of this came the so-called Tunnel Rats - an elite band of volunteer soldiers, selected both for their bravery and, above all, their small stature. Their motto was "non gratum anus rodentum" - bad Latin for "not worth a rat's ass". Usually stripped to the waist and armed with just a torch and a pistol, the "rats" would often spend hours at a time inching through the humid, dark tunnels engaged in a deadly game of hide and seek.

With each movement the rats would have to feel for any suspect root or wire that could detonate a carefully primed booby trap. Some died in the process - many more were dragged screaming from the inky blackness.

Despite this revamped effort at fighting the enemy on its own terms, U.S. operations remained wholly unsuccessful at eliminating the existence of the tunnels. In 1967, General William Westmoreland tried launching a larger assault on Cu Chi and the Iron Triangle. Called Operation Cedar Falls, it was, in principle, exactly the same as Operation Crimp, but with 30,000 troops instead of the 8,000.

On January 18th, tunnel rats from the 1st and 5th Infantry uncovered the Viet Cong district headquarters of Cu Chi containing a half million documents concerning all types of military strategy. Among the documents were maps of U.S. bases, detailed accounts of Viet Cong movement from Cambodia into Vietnam, lists of political sympathizers, and even plans for a failed assassination attempt on Robert McNamara. With this one exception, Operation Cedar Falls failed to achieve its objective of destroying the communist stronghold in the region.

       

A command center in the tunnels. Today, visitors to the complex can enjoy a simple meal underground, sampling foods that the underground fighters ate during the war.

Throughout the course of the war, the tunnels in and around Cu Chi proved to be a source of frustration for U.S. military in Vietnam. The Viet Cong had been so well entrenched in the area by 1965 that they were in the unique position of being able to control where and when battles would take place, thus forcing the Americans on the defensive in a war where they clearly could have had a military superiority. By helping to covertly move supplies and house troops, the tunnels of Cu Chi allowed guerrilla fighters in South Vietnam to prolong the war and increase American costs and casualties to the point of their ultimate withdrawal in 1972.